Line Item Veto: Why Presidents Still Cannot Do It

Presidents Want it, But High Court Says 'No'

Woman walks on fountain near U.S. Capitol
Woman Walks on Fountain Near U.S. Capitol. Mark Wilson / Getty Images

The line item veto is exactly what you might do when your grocery tab runs to $20.00, but you only have $15.00 on you. Instead of adding to your total debt by paying with a credit card, you put back $5.00 worth of items you don’t really need. The line item veto — the power to not buy unneeded items — is a power U.S. presidents have long wanted but have just as long been denied.

The line-item veto, sometimes called the partial veto, is a type of veto that would give the President of the United States the power to cancel an individual provision or provisions - line-items - in spending, or "appropriations" bills, without vetoing the entire bill.

Like traditional presidential vetoes, a line-item veto could be overridden by Congress.

Line Item Veto Pros and Cons

Proponents of the line-item veto argue that it would allow the president to cut wasteful "pork barrel" or earmark spending from the federal budget.

Opponents argue that it would continue a trend of increasing the power of the executive branch of government at the expense of the legislative branch. Opponents also argue, and the Supreme Court has agreed, that the line-item veto is unconstitutional. In addition, they say it would not reduce wasteful spending and could even make it worse.

History of the Line-Item Veto

Virtually every president since Ulysses S. Grant has asked Congress for line-veto power. President Clinton actually got, but did not keep it long.

On April 9, 1996, former President Bill Clinton signed the 1996 Line Item Veto Act, which had been championed through Congress by Senators Bob Dole (R-Kansas), and John McCain (R-Arizona), with the support of several Democrats.

On August 11, 1997, President Clinton used the line-item veto for the first time to cut three measures from an expansive spending and taxation bill. At the bill's signing ceremony, Clinton declared the selective veto a cost-cutting breakthrough and a victory over Washington lobbyists and special interest groups.

"From now on, presidents will be able to say 'no' to wasteful spending or tax loopholes, even as they say 'yes' to vital legislation," said President Clinton.

But, "from now on" wasn't for long at all. Clinton used the line-item veto two more times in 1997, cutting one measure from the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 and two provisions of the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Almost immediately, groups aggrieved by the action, including the City of New York, challenged the line-item veto law in court.

On February 12, 1998, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia declared the 1996 Line Item Veto Act unconstitutional, and the Clinton administration appealed the decision to the Supreme Court.

In a 6-3 ruling issued on June 25, 1998, the Supreme Court, in the case of Clinton v. City of New York upheld the District Court's decision, overturning the 1996 Line Item Veto Act as a violation of the "Presentment Clause," (Article I, Section 7), of the U.S. Constitution.

By the time the Supreme Court took the power away from him, President Clinton has used the line-item veto to cut 82 items from 11 spending bills. While Congress overrode 38 of Clinton's line-item vetoes, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the 44 line-item vetoes that stood saved the government almost $2 billion.

Why is the Line-Item Veto Unconstitutional?

The Constitution's Presentment Clause cited by the Supreme Court spells out the basic legislative process by declaring that any bill, before being presented to the president for his or her signature, must have been passed by both the Senate and the House.

In using the line-item veto to delete individual measures, the president is actually amending bills, a legislative power granted exclusively to Congress by the Constitution.

In the court's majority opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote: "there is no provision in the Constitution that authorizes the president to enact, to amend or to repeal statutes."

The court also held that the line-item veto violated the principles of the "separation of powers" between the legislative, executive and judicial branches of the federal government.

(Also see: Executive Privilege Based on Separation of Powers)

In his concurring opinion, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote that the "undeniable effects" of the line-item veto were to "enhance the President's power to reward one group and punish another, to help one set of taxpayers and hurt another, to favor one State and ignore another."

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Longley, Robert. "Line Item Veto: Why Presidents Still Cannot Do It." ThoughtCo, Nov. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/presidents-cannot-have-line-item-veto-3322132. Longley, Robert. (2017, November 5). Line Item Veto: Why Presidents Still Cannot Do It. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/presidents-cannot-have-line-item-veto-3322132 Longley, Robert. "Line Item Veto: Why Presidents Still Cannot Do It." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/presidents-cannot-have-line-item-veto-3322132 (accessed November 23, 2017).